Nature writing is a well-established genre in its own right with a huge raft of authors writing beautiful prose about the landscapes around us. But, have you considered the extent to which nature writing features in literary fiction? Or how our favourite authors make place an intrinsic part of their narratives?
Well, Melissa Davies has. In this fantastic guest post, she explores some of the best examples of nature writing in contemporary literary fiction.
Let’s take a wander through the words…
Nature Writing in literary fiction
Nature writing is having a revival. It’s no longer confined to bearded old men who can barely read their own biro scrawl when they descend from the summit of Skiddaw. Nature writing is urban; we can celebrate an account of a Bradford wasteland in the same breath as the first ascent of K2. In her editor’s note, Sara Perez of Flyway magazine said:
The places where we make our lives, and the ways in which these spaces themselves change, impacts us irreversibly. All work is written from someplace.
So isn’t fiction doing exactly the same thing? While setting is key in most works of fiction, some writers develop the landscape until it has the presence of another character in the story. Like modern nature writers, these authors are exploring human experience of the environment in their fiction and I’m not talking about Thoreau’s swallows and aspens.
Weird Fiction and the horror of nature
I remember hearing Andrew Michael Hurley—author of The Loney—talking about Weird Fiction in an episode of Books & Authors which first got me thinking about how nature appears in fiction. In their conversation, Hurley and Frostrup seemed to be suggesting that landscape as an active part of the story is a characteristic of the weird fiction genre so perhaps bestseller The Loney belongs alongside the work of Lovecraft and Poe. As a reader I’ve been changed. I’m looking for nature in fiction now.
but there was such an inevitability about The Loney’s cruelty that more often than not these souls went unremembered
The evasive landscape of Hurley’s Lancashire is horrific. It’s a manipulative voice whispering in the ear of the pilgrims sharing the cottage. A voice that only Mummer seems deaf to. The Loney’s personification in the extract above offers the ghost of this extra character which will haunt the following pages, yet it’s only the young narrator who directly acknowledges or seems to interact with nature in the story, in the same way that he alone can interpret the signals of his mute brother.
Hurley says the way Thomas Hardy wrote about landscape had a strong influence on The Loney but that he also turned to the nature writing of Robert MacFarlane which deals with folklore and the science of nature to understand human experience. If Hurley was receiving guidance from non-fiction writers on how to deal with the natural world in words, it comes across most strongly in the personality of his landscape that’s rich in hearsay, superstitions and memory.
Recent bestseller The Circle struck me as another book that uses nature as a character. Although, rather than being another voice in the story, the pristine gardens of Circle campus mirror the personality of the main character Mae. Even the bay, which is one of the only references to nature in the ‘real world’ is picture perfect with a full moon, playful seals and placid water. If the landscape was complex or the campus flawed Mae’s character would appear thin and poorly written—until the final scene of the book when, maybe, Egger’s point with Mae becomes apparent.
Personification of landscape
Years ago I bought Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves to feed my obsession with bleakness. Snowy, featureless and barren landscape draw me in for a reason I can’t pin down but which I’m sure could be analysed…The Canada of trappers and trading posts is my comfort zone and The Tenderness of Wolves remains my sick-day reread. Like Hurley, Penney humanises the landscape, she gives it a role in the story as the accomplice to a murder and the guardian of her son, who their neighbours assume committed the murder.
We fanned out from the landing stages at Halifax and Montreal like the tributaries of a river, and disappeared, everyone, into the wilderness. The land swallowed us up, and was hungry for more.
The dominance of the landscape in the lives of the people of Dove River and Caulfield translates itself into the omnipotence of God as the story moves into the wilderness. Outside the settlement, snow hides, reveals and contracts relationships between human characters.
Nature as compensation
To come back to the Weird Fiction genre, an essential feature is the suspending of the laws of nature which are our defence against chaos. In recent release The Summer that Melted Everything, rather than a suspension of the laws of nature to create horror, it is normality, or the expected, turned extreme. From the opening sentence the character of Sol and nature are intertwined:
The heat came with the Devil. It was the summer of 1984, and while the Devil had been invited, the heat had not.
It’s as unsettling as it is familiar. The devil has always been associated with heat, with burning and drought and the presence of dust and degradation in the heat is what gives Sol’s character credibility. Some of the responses I’ve read to Tiffany McDaniel’s novel say that she fails to place the novel in 1984, and even weaker are the passages set in the future of 2055. That, although she tells us it’s set at this time there is little reference to it and apparently it’s of no relevance to the story. However, I’m convinced that, although what these reviewers say is true, it doesn’t impact the story. McDaniel uses landscape and nature to compensate for vague dating. The perfection of the rose petals that the children tape to Sol’s skin, against the backdrop of a scorched suburb is more powerful here than say, a reference to the Reagan era of the larger world. A small town has a small focus and to create claustrophobia in the heat, the town and town’s people must be isolated, the reader equally undistracted.
However, I’m convinced that, although what these reviewers say is true, it doesn’t impact the story. McDaniel uses landscape and nature to compensate for vague dating. The perfection of the rose petals that the children tape to Sol’s skin, against the backdrop of a scorched suburb is more powerful here than say, a reference to the Reagan era of the larger world. A small town has a small focus and to create claustrophobia in the heat, the town and town’s people must be isolated, the reader equally undistracted.
So hopefully I’ve convinced you that nature writing and fiction aren’t strangers, they’re sisters, sharing clothes and holding hands. Looking at the way nature is handled can help us to define the genre of a book—only if we need to!
But it can also be subverted, as in The Summer that Melted Everything. Human experience of nature, whether urban or wild, creates characters but it also creates writers. Hurley continues to write about his native Lancashire, like many writers he’s inspired to explore the past and the characteristics of the someplace that he is experiencing. Is that so different to the motive of a contemporary nature writer?